Coach Lesley Blyth shouts instruction to her dragon boat team during recent action. COURTESY PHOTO

Coach Lesley Blyth shouts instruction to her dragon boat team during recent action. COURTESY PHOTO

Paddling toward world waters

Washington Masters Dragon Boat teams prepare to compete in Hungary this summer

Chris Salzer and her teammates are ready to take on the world and test unknown waters.

The big splash comes July 17-22 when three Washington Masters (WAM) Dragon Boat teams compete at the Club Crew World Championships in Szeged, Hungary.

Salzer and company have passed this way before. A women’s crew competed with mixed results in Australian waters two years ago.

“It was a big learning experience for our group because we never participated in an event like that,” Salzer said of the adventure Down Under. “We learned a lot of information, learned a lot about international competition. … But in Hungary, there’s going to be a lot more competition in this particular arena than there was in Australia. If we can learn something from it, the expectation is to do the best we can.

“It should be very exciting,” said Salzer, a dragon boat paddler for 11 years who lives in Kent and works for an Auburn brokerage firm. “I would like to think we represent the Pacific Northwest well. Of course, we want to place high enough to bring home some pretty medals and (high) standing for our group, but we will see what happens. We’ve been training hard.”

Salzer will join her teammates on the Senior A (ages 40 and older) mixed crew. Team Washington also will field a Senior A open crew (any gender) and a women’s Senior C crew (60 and older).

Lesley Blyth, who captains the team of 40-something paddlers, expects to face tough competition, especially from Canada, Australia, China and Taiwan.

“But with the event being in Europe, there are a lot of teams there who we expect to be really strong, such as Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany,” Blyth said. “Our mixed team will be up against 19 other teams in those divisions.”

Blyth’s dragon boat accommodates 22 athletes, a steerer and a captain who beats a drum while calling out strokes over 200-, 500- and 2,000-meter distances. The paddlers work together to perform the best they can, Blyth said.

The team recently competed at a festival in Arizona and will paddle at a dragon boat festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, a tune-up for Hungary.

Team Washington has higher expectations than when it first encountered world waters in Blyth’s native Australia.

“We did OK,” she said. “We’re hoping to do a little bit better this time around, but there are far more teams competing.”

Dragon boat racing is more than just a group of people merely getting together and paddling a 10- or 20-person shell. It is about people becoming athletes and accomplishing difficult things.

“There’s tremendous satisfaction in seeing a group of people work together to accomplish something they never thought they could, whether that’s simply feeling the smooth run of the boat or winning a race,” Blyth said. “One of the women on our team, who is in her late 60s, recently said she’s the fittest she’s ever been. Dragon boating is truly a team sport, and everyone has to be part of the team, and that’s an aspect that can’t be underestimated.”

It takes a special athlete to compete in the sport.

“People who are willing to work hard, make the commitment, and really have the interest of the team at heart more than themselves,” Blyth added.

Dragon boat racing also requires full-body movement and quick thinking.

“It’s not just your arms and what you might think. It entails a lot of head games, I guess you could say,” Salzer said. “You have to make sure that you’re pushing yourself to do everything that you can do … (listen to) the commands of the boat, commands of the coach and being with teammates.

“I absolutely love it,” she added. “Good exercise. Good people.”

Jeff Markley, a Boeing mechanic, and his wife, Ann, are team members who live on Lake Meridian. He accompanied Ann to Australia two years ago but this summer will compete in Hungary with the open crew.

“It’s teamwork, a lot about technique … and timing,” said Jeff Markley, a member of the WAM’s Mixed Senior B gold-medal effort at 2,000 meters at the Pan Am Club Crew Championships in Puerto Rico early last year.

WAM teams attract talent from throughout the Puget Sound area, including Auburn, Kent and Covington.

The teams train throughout the year on Lake Meridian, Lake Washington and Foss Waterway.

“Sometimes having rough conditions is a good thing because you never know what it’s going to be like on race day, and the team has to be prepared for any conditions,” Blyth said, adding that the crew prefers to row on the calmer waters of Lake Meridian.

Paddlers understand the importance of navigating troubled waters, and training for the possibility of facing choppy courses.

“We don’t like it so much, but it’s certainly good experience,” Salzer said. “You never know what race conditions you will face.”

Learn more at clubsake.com.

The Washington Masters Dragon Boat Team contributed to this story.

Washington Masters Dragon Boat teams will compete at the Club Crew World Championships in Szeged, Hungary, in July. COURTESY PHOTO

Washington Masters Dragon Boat teams will compete at the Club Crew World Championships in Szeged, Hungary, in July. COURTESY PHOTO

Members of the Washington Masters Dragon Boat teams. COURTESY PHOTO

Members of the Washington Masters Dragon Boat teams. COURTESY PHOTO

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